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Who is serious?

About the author
Mai Ghoussoubis was a Lebanese artist, writer and publisher. She wrote numerous articles on culture and middle-eastern issues for international journals.

The Washington Post sees the roots of the Abu Ghraib torture scandal in a “corrupted culture” which violated the Geneva Conventions and “(distorted) the rule of law”; Human Rights Watch identifies violations that “reflect official policy authorized at the highest levels” of government; the International Committee of the Red Cross judges that the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners was not confined to individual cases but formed part of a systematic pattern.

Mai Ghoussoub is here responding to Douglas Murray’s “Bad seeds in a good war”

But Douglas Murray knows better. It’s nothing but a nasty joke – “pulling down a man’s trousers for kicks”.

After reading his contribution to the Iraq debate, I felt not only like screaming (a response that Murray dismisses as curious) but a kind of fear. Has the time not long passed for justifications based on degrees of aggression against people’s bodies, integrity and rights when they are defenceless in front of those who have power over them?

Douglas Murray is not interested in the moral questions raised by torture. He is still arguing as if we had not seen the leaked pictures of the man dragged with a lead around his neck, the tilted bodies chained on bed frames, the naked prisoner terrorised by the threatening dogs, of those who died under interrogation. If he believes in the democratic crusade which ostensibly inspired this war, he should give a little thought to the fact that humiliation is not what the Iraqi people need to believe in this democracy.

Murray says that we only need to read a book to know that “in any conflict and on any side people behave badly”. Does he mean that if this happens it should be acceptable, that the decent people on each side should not fight nail and tooth to stop it happening instead of finding excuses and attenuating circumstances?

If there is one book that should be read nowadays, it is Pierre Vidal-Naquet’s Torture: cancer of democracy.

What is it that Murray finds (his recurrent theme) un-”serious”? The fact that we are disgusted by images showing people inflicting pain and humiliation on other humans who are unable to defend themselves? The fact that we protest when a war presented in moral terms has as one of its results a degradation that echoes what it was fought to end – the cruelty of a regime that violated people’s bodies?

What he trivialises as “pulling down a man’s trousers for kicks”, a “penchant for naked pyramids” and “a dirty girl’s perversions” evades troubling, necessary questions about women and their attitude in a war zone. Who can be so sure about the humanising input of women in the army today? Why do the women in these pictures mix sexuality and power as in the porn movies that circulate mainly among males?

There is something disturbing about Murray’s dismissive words for those who are shaken by the images of humans being subjected to cruelty and humiliation.

But there seems more than mere denial in Douglas Murray’s casual refusal to see the Abu Ghraib actions as torture, or his mocking quote-marks around the word “scandal”. There seems a failure of moral imagination here, one that an American conservative like John Hulsman does not share.

In the urge to find vindication in the “large” outcome of the war he so vigorously champions, can Douglas Murray not stop for a second and ask himself why no army or militia seems immune to the exercise of objectification with “the other’s body” in the context of occupation, incarceration and interrogation? This sad, fearful combination of dehumanisation combined with intimate physical aggression has been practised too often, by too many, in history. It does not allow anybody to feel superior civilisationally to anybody else.

Despite this unhappy universality in mankind’s behaviour, I believe that we should still give such actions a bad name, and not try to minimise their crime or allow them to go unpunished. This, I believe, is the serious logic of universal, human justice inside the “scream” that the images of Abu Ghraib provoked in millions of people across the world.


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